Japan captain Michael Leitch warned that the Brave Blossoms will fear no one at this year’s World Cup as the hosts target a place in the knockout stage for the first time.
The New Zealand-born flanker shot to fame four years ago when Japan won three games under Eddie Jones, including an astonishing 34-32 victory over two-time champion South Africa.
Just under 100 days before Japan kicks off the World Cup against Russia, Leitch is backing his side to make history.
“Our main objective is get out of the pool stages,” he said in an interview.
“Once we get out of there we’ve either got New Zealand or South Africa, and we’re not going to lay down for them either.”
Leitch’s bold decision not to kick for a draw with Japan trailing the Springboks by three points in the last minute of their 2015 opener in Brighton led to Karne Hesketh’s famous try — securing the World Cup’s biggest upset.
“That day I had a coffee with Eddie and he said ‘Just go with whatever you want to do!’ — that’s probably the best advice Eddie ever gave me,” said Leitch.
“If I was smart I would have retired then and there and gone into the Hall of Fame,” added the 30-year-old, who has become the face of Japanese rugby.
Leitch, who moved to Sapporo as a 15-year-old, credits Jones with laying the foundations for Japan’s success with his punishing training sessions.
“Back then we didn’t know what hard work was,” said the hulking back-row forward, who is currently recovering from a groin injury.
“Eddie was all about the finer details. We had to just turn up and train — and play exactly how we trained.”
But Leitch believes Japan —which also faces Ireland, Scotland and Samoa in Pool A this year — has improved under current coach Jamie Joseph.
“With Jamie’s style the players have a lot more responsibility and accountability for their actions,” said Leitch after a workout with the Top League’s Toshiba Brave Lupus.
“The team has a lot more attachment to what we’re doing this time around.”
But Leitch, who is targeting a return at next month’s Pacific Nations Cup, played down the pressure on Japan to progress from its group after its 2015 heroics.
“There’s a lot of expectation,” he admitted. “But I don’t see that as pressure. I’m quietly confident we’ll get the job done.”
Leitch predicted that Japan’s tournament opener on Sept. 20 could be its most difficult test, noting how it only beat the Russians by five points last November.
“That will be the hardest game — coming up against Russia, the mental game,” he said.
“That’s the game they’re targeting,” added Leitch. “If they’re going to beat someone it’s going to be Japan, so we’ve got to be ready.”